by David Thompson
Eric Weinert is starting to sweat—and not because he’s poised to fly hundreds of feet above the field he’s standing in with a two-stroke engine and a propeller mounted to his back. He’s sweating because he can’t get off the ground.
photo by Peter French
The fifty-two-year-old Hilo businessman is hooked on powered paragliding, regular paragliding’s motorized subset, a sport that originated in France in the 1980s, arrived in the United States in the 1990s and now has an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 practitioners here.
Weinert’s been racking up flight time since he bought his first motorized paragliding apparatus last summer. Some days he’ll fly for hours, hovering over waterfalls, buzzing startled farmers in their fields and quite literally dropping in on friends out of the clear blue sky. "The wind’s in your face, and you’re just sitting up there in what’s like this lawn chair, and it’s just incredible!" Weinert says.
While ordinary paragliders need high places to launch from, power paragliders can take off from just about anywhere. That appeals to Weinert, who likes to take off from the front yard of the house he’s building on the Hamakua Coast. Today he’s trying out a brand-new engine, one more powerful and unwieldy than the one he’s used to. He’s having trouble getting airborne, and the weather isn’t helping: He needs at least a ten-mile-per-hour headwind to inflate and hold his paragliding canopy aloft as he takes off running with the seventy-pound motor on his back. But the wind won’t cooperate. Each time it picks up long enough for Weinert to raise the canopy off the ground, it dies before he can take off.
Weinert’s getting tired and frustrated. His power paragliding pals crack jokes to ease the tension: Don’t get para-peeved now, Weinert. You’re looking para-pissed. Weinert has his para-patience tested for two hours before a wind builds out of the east. He raises his canopy, runs like crazy, hits the gas and—finally, he’s up! He soars around the field in big loops, the motor on his back droning obnoxiously, like a flying leaf blower. Through binoculars, you can see an enormous grin on his face.
Offshore, a dark squall kicks up whitecaps and threatens to move in. Weinert prudently cuts his flight short, letting up on the throttle to descend and swooping in for a graceful landing. "What a rush! What a total rush!" he exclaims. "I’m addicted! I am 100 percent addicted!" He covers his motor, folds up his canopy and waits for the squall to pass. Then he sets everything back up and gets ready to go again.